North and South Dakotans Shun Extremes

IT was never the best of times. It was never the worst of times. Welcome to the careful, conservative Dakotas!Robert Burns, a political scientist at South Dakota State University, says the cautious Dakota attitude, held by many people here, is a "drought mentality" born of many difficult years on the farm. It cuts through everyday life here, as well as people's politics. As Dr. Burns explains it: "We never want to do anything when it is raining [and crops are good] for fear it won't rain the next year. And then the next year, sure enough, it doesn't rain - so we don't do anything." Such farm-bred conservatism smooths the bad times here (people just fall back on savings), but it also prevents the Dakotas from enjoying real boom times like Texas. A visitor can see this caution reflected in North Dakota's Capitol, which is modeled after the utilitarianism of a grain silo. In a small brochure, the state brags that its Capitol contains 80 percent usable space (no frivolous dome here!) compared with 50 percent usable space in Nebraska's towering Capitol, and just 29 percent usable space in Minnesota's beautiful Capitol. Furthermore, North Dakotans say their Capitol, built for just 46 cents per cubic foot, was less than half as costly as others built about the same time, such as Louisiana's and Nebraska's. Jeff Masten, chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party, says he sees this frugality often in his legal work. He says it is typical of many of the Norwegian-Lutheran settlers in this region. Sometimes when an elderly farmer or his widow passes on, Mr. Masten says, the heirs will open a safety-deposit box and find they had $300,000 in savings certificates even though they lived like paupers most of their lives." But Dakotans aren't alone. In Fort Dodge, Iowa, a local businessman says his region of the state is home to dozens of "closet millionaires." People in Iowa and the Dakotas just don't like to brag, he says, explaining: "They drive old pickups because they know some of their neighbors aren't doing so well. It just wouldn't be nice to show off."

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